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Koreans see their dramatic history through eyes of artists

Painter Hubert Vos visited the Far East

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

SEOUL, South Korea - A new art exhibit, called Korean Rhapsody: A Montage of History and Memory, with 80 historical documents, photographs, artworks and media works, on display in Seoul through June 5, is also drawing attention to an artist born and raised in the Netherlands who was among the first Dutch artists to visit and paint in Korea.

A painting by Maastricht-born Dutch American artist Josephus Hubertus (Hubert) Vos (1855-1935) is considered to be a key presentation in the exhibit and displays a prized cityscape of Seoul. The exhibit at the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art reflects crucial moments of Korea’s painful but dynamic past.

The artworks do not follow a chronological order but a more multidimensional sequence. Museum official Hong Ra-young said he hoped the exhibit will offer a chance for the older generation to look at the past and find hope; and for the younger generation to understand their history and get familiar with it.

Touring the Far East

The opening section, which traces Korea’s history from the late 1800s up until the end of Japanese colonial rule in 1945, starts off with Hubert Vos’ serene cityscape painting of Seoul, which he made during his trip around Asia and Hawaii in 1898-1899.

Vos, who settled in the U.S. after working as the Dutch Commissioner to the 1893 Chicago world's fair, traveled twice through the Far East and painted canvasses in Hawaii, Thailand, Indonesia, Korea and China. He painted three known pieces in duplicate in Korea, leaving one set behind and the other with him. In Korea, only the Seoul cityscape survives.

An accomplished and sought-after high society portrait painter as well, Vos painted portraits of Gojong, King of the Joseon Dynasty and of Min Sangho, a politician of the Joseon Dynasty.

Empress of China

During his second journey to the Far East, Vos was invited to paint high court officials in Beijing. Upon arrival, he learnt that he not been commissioned to paint high imperial court officials but the rarely seen Chinese Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi (1835-1908). Chinese court officials also wanted Vos to portray the 70-year old woman at a much younger age, which he did.

The imperial painting received renewed attention some years ago, when Anne van Grevenstein of the Stichting Restauratie Atelier Limburg was commissioned to restore the poorly maintained canvas to its former beauty. Then Dutch Culture minister Ronald Plasterk presented the restored work to Chinese officials at the Summer Palace near Beijing, in November 2008. The restoration was commemorated with the release of a book on the Dutch painter and the restoration of his portrait of the Empress-dowager. The book includes an accompanying dvd which follows the restoration process.

Hubert Vos is best known for the paintings he made in Hawaii, Indonesia, Korea, China, and Hong Kong. He is often grouped with Theodore Wores, Bessie Wheeler, Hubert and Matteo Sandona as one of the artists who made an effort to capture the life and culture of Old Hawaii before it disappeared.